It’s the number one cause of death in Australia, but 80 per cent of the time, cardiovascular disease is preventable.
But how specifically do we do that?
Eleven minutes is all it takes to significantly lower your risk of heart disease.Credit:Stocksy
The fastest way to reduce our risk is as unsexy as it is simple: eat more vegetables. The second fastest way only takes 11 minutes.
Simply getting our heart rate up for 11 minutes every day – jogging, dancing, having sex, riding your bike – reduces the risk of all-cause mortality by 20 to 30 per cent.
And why 11 minutes?
“The least you can get away with to improve heart health is 75 minutes a week of vigorous intensity exercise, which, if you break that down, it actually comes down to about 11 minutes a day,” explains Dr Belinda Parmenter, an exercise physiologist at UNSW.
“Find little ways to bring high intensity or higher intensity exercise into your day and you don’t have to set aside half an hour or an hour … you don’t even have to do the 11 minutes at once.”
That means that those of us who seemingly struggle to find a spare 11 minutes don't even have to change out of our work clothes. We can run a flight of stairs here and walk super fast there to accumulate those precious, heart-saving minutes over the course of each day.
And for those who don’t like huffing and puffing, 22 minutes a day at a moderate intensity, “which means it’s somewhat hard to do and you’re a little bit out of breath but you can maintain a conversation”, will do the trick too.
There are so many different things it addresses. It’s a multivitamin that works.
“They are comparable, probably the only difference is that the higher intensity means you get it done quicker and you get a quicker overall increase in your cardiorespiratory fitness and it’s the increase in your cardiorespiratory fitness that leads to the decrease in mortality,” explains Parmenter, who is part of the Look Inside My Heart: Medical Science, Health and Lifestyle panel being held at UNSW next week, to discuss the latest research and how to maintain a healthy heart.
Interestingly, the type of exercise may affect the heart health of men and women differently.
Strength-based exercise, for instance, is more strongly associated with a risk reduction among women (40 per cent compared with 31 per cent on average for men).
“I would suspect, because women typically have a lower muscle mass than men, that they respond to a greater extent to strength training,” Parmenter suggests.
Regardless of the type we do, exercise benefits our heart in many ways, she adds.
It increases the strength of our heart and its capacity to pump more blood, which means more oxygen and nutrients saturating the body in every beat.
“We’ve also got the improvements in muscle metabolism and insulin sensitivity, improvements in blood glucose control and we get a reduction in cholesterol,” Parmenter says. “There are so many different things it addresses. It’s a multivitamin that works.”
This is lucky, because actual multivitamins don’t help to prevent cardiovascular problems. Actual nutrients in the foods we eat – or lack thereof – however are attributed to as much as 60 per cent of the risk.
As it stands, only about 7 per cent of Australian adults eat the recommended five serves of vegetables a day.
The benefit of increasing our intake is two-fold, explains UNSW nutritionist and fellow panelist, Dr Rebecca Reynolds. We get the benefits from the vegetables in and of themselves and, if we fill up on vegetables, we are likely to eat less of the foods that increase our risk of heart disease.
So potassium, which is found in spinach, brocolli, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, zucchini, peas, eggplant, mushrooms and cucumbers, helps to lower blood pressure. Eating potassium-rich foods also works to reduce the effect of salt, which increases bood pressure and of which we eat too much (about twice the recommended daily teaspoon).
“High blood pressure is a big risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and it is very much affected by the amount of salt and potassium we consume,” says Reynolds.
Eating more potassium-rich vegetables is also likely to displace the amount of high-in-salt processed foods we consume, she adds, as well as the amount of fatty meat and transfat-filled foods, which are also associated with “bad cholesterol”.
The fibre in vegetables also makes us feel more full, which can help with body weight regulation.
This is important, Reynolds explains, because visceral fat produces “inflammatory factors” that can damage our cardiovascular system directly and also impacts insulin sensitivity.
So while the message may not be sexy, we can take heart that it is certainly simple, Reynolds says: “Veg is best.” And a few flights of stairs apparently are too.
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